When is Marvin Mandel to be released from prison and why?

News accounts published on Oct. 3 after the U.S. Parole Commission made its decision the previous day agree on only one tentative fact: Mandel will be freed on May 14, 1982, probably.

The former Maryland governor is serving three years in a federal prison in Florida after having been found guilty of political corruption. Mandel went to prison last May.

Since the parole commission set a release date two years from the time he entered prison, that means he has been given one year's parole. Right?

Wrong, even though The Post said it. Both the Associated Press and the Department of Justice said he had been granted parole but did not specify the length of time. The Baltimore Sun said he had been denied early parole. All this from the same set of facts.

The confusion arises out of a double-track system of prison release. Either track can spring a prisoner early.

One track is administered by the Bureau of Prisons. Let's call it "good time," an ironic euphemism used by the bureau. Under this process, mandated by statute, a federal prisoner automatically receives seven days off for each month of his sentence, assuming good behavior. In Mandel's case, that means he started a three-year sentence with 252 days coming to him.But there's more. All prisoners in the type of facility Mandel occupies receive another three days off per month, five days per month after the first year. That subtracts another 96 days from Mandel's term. And it is rare but possible that his sentence could be reduced by additional "good time."

Now comes the parole commission down the second track of prisoner release. Its processes start with a hearing before examiners at the prison. The examiners recommend to a regional office to handle so off it went for consideration to three commissioners in Washington. At that point it was delayed while the commission asked for additional information. By then the case was so confused that spokesmen for the Justice Department were unable to sort it out. One kept reporters waiting for two hours and then said he couldn't answer their questions.

Back to the Atlanta regional office went the request for materials and eventually back to Washington came the materials. Finally on Oct. 2 came the commissioners' decision. The release date was set and reporters covering the commission divided on what had been decided.

Since the release date is a year before Mandel's term is up, The Post's reporters wrote that it was a year's parole. The Associated Press avoided the problem by omitting any reference to the length of parole. The Baltimore Sun's reporter looked at when Mandel would have been released without parole and found that it coincides roughly with the date Mandel is to get out anyway; The Sun's story said the former governor had been denied early parole.

The reason it takes an abacus and a Ouija board to figure out what happened is that the parole commission played a bureaucratic shell game. Its action, which it calls a parole, grants Mandel 17 days off his sentence. The other 348 days he will not serve are granted to him by statute.

He does not yet get a year off via parole, as The Post said. And he does not get four months off via parole, as the Justice Department said this week. And he might get out somewhat earlier than May 14, 1982, if he earns more "good time."

So if you really want to know when Mandel is to be released, go back to the abacus and the Ouija board; it's too tough for other devices.